The 7-seat Tapas Molecular Bar in the sky lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo is the home of chef Jeff Ramsey, formerly of Minibar in Washington D.C. My first meal in 2008, while delicious, featured many of the same dishes featured at Minibar. I think a lot of this was due to the newness of the restaurant and the difficulty in finding its place. It’s no easy task to integrate new molecular techniques with traditional Japanese cuisine. However now, two years later, this restaurant has really found its niche in its surroundings and thoroughly impressed me with innovative, delicious, and really fun cuisine.
One aspect of the Molecular Bar that makes the experience so fun is its chefs. Instead of creating an environment in which interactivity is passive-aggressively shunned, chef Ramsey and his team explained the back story of each dish and how it related to Japanese culture. This was particularly crucial for the nostaligic dishes as many of the diners did not grow up in Japan. Questions were encouraged, and frankly, this in-depth understanding of the food I was eating really added another dimension to the meal’s enjoyment. Not only did I learn a tremendous amount about the food and its preparation, but I felt like I was eating a story with each course.
Chupa Tapas – A candied foie gras pâté shaped and wrapped to look like a Chupa Chups lollypop. This was unbelievable, and possibly the best thing I’ve tasted in awhile. Eaten in one bite, the crunchy sugar shell cracks into a crispy brittle adding textural contrast to the smooth and creamy foie gras. The rich flavor in combination with the caramel flavored sweetness was incredible.
Tai Chazuke – Chazuke is a Japanese soup made from green tea, dashi broth, and rice. It is often topped with dried seaweed, pickled vegetables, fish roe, and other salty and sometimes sour savory ingredients. Like porridge, this dish is a way to utilize leftover rice as the water re-hydrates it. In this dish a lean slice of sea bream was served alongside a spherified tea ball with crunchy miso beads. In the mouth the ingredients combine and re-create the nostaligic flavor of Chazuke. This was a pretty original concept.
Bacalao Espuma – A shot glass of cod foam layered with tomato puree and a small bread crisp to add textural contrast. The salty cod foam spread like whipped cream on the crouton, the tomato added a hint of sweetness. This was quite good.
Chef Ramsey demonstrating the spherification technique. This technique, originally conceived by El Bulli, is used here to create a dish that looks like caviar. The spheres form when sodium alginate is dripped into a cold calcium chloride solution forming a skin over the liquid beads.
Roast Pepper Caviar - This was a dish more about the concept than the flavor. The texture was similar to caviar, though not identical. For me the defining fingerprint of caviar is a briny and salty flavor in combination with a cold temperature and burst-in-your-mouth consistency. This dish had none of those, so while the concept was playful it was still far from caviar. I also don’t really like the flavor of sweet red pepper. This was my least favorite course of the night.
Black truffle and lily bulb – This was an exceptional dish. A light and fluffy lily froth garnished with caramelized garlic and fragrant black truffle shavings. The nutty and pasty chunks of lily bulb at the bottom — a bit like chestnut without the sweetness — added a creaminess without making the soup too rich. The warm fragrance from the truffle really brought everything together.
King crab and uni – A light and fresh followup to the previous course. A variation of this dish was served at my previous meal here called “Red.” Unlike last time, however, this dish had focus and the ingredients really worked well together. The simple tomato-infused jelly brought out some of the latent vegetal flavor of the crab. The uni added sweetness.
Xiaolongbao – Traditionally a type of steamed bun from eastern China, also known as “soup dumplings.” The dumplings are stuffed with broth and are usually eaten with a spoon to collect the bouillon as it spills out. Similarly, the lamb rib was filled with jus creating a natural dumpling. When eaten in one bite the juice mixes with the already moist meat making this chop taste even sweeter.
Petits fours – A sacher torte of apricot jam inside of chocolate cake with a clear candy dome encasing, a miniature mont blanc (a fresh chestnut cream dessert), a thin slice of cinnamon toast, and a small effervescent pink disc called “raspberry soda.” Last was a black truffle flavored chocolate truffle. The smell of the truffle coming from the chocolate was immediately noticeable.
Fruits – Lemon, lime, and strawberry. First, Chef Ramsey instructed us to taste a lime to ensure its sourness. We then chewed on the miracle fruit for thirty seconds without any indication of what it would do to our tastebuds. Afterwards, we popped the sour lemon and limes like they were the sweetest fruits imaginable. The miracle fruit prevented our tongue from tasting sour leaving behind only the sweet taste of sugar.
My recent meal told a story. This meal was no hodgepodge of ingredients forming disjoined courses. Many of the dishes invoked memories of Japanese comfort food only told from a different perspective. The fast-paced service kept the twenty-course meal alive and exciting. This was an edible show, and it tasted really good.
This is certainly one of the coolest restaurants in Tokyo right now. I can’t wait to go back.